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A few years ago, a friend and I got into a little dispute (don’t worry folks, we are all good!). During a telephone conversation with this friend, they were venting to me about a situation, and what they received on my end was crickets. To be honest, I had no idea what my friend was venting to me about, nor did I understand what the issue was. As I continued to interrupt my friend to ask them what they meant by this and that, I could hear in my friend’s voice that they were getting frustrated with me. I have to admit, I was also getting frustrated because I genuinely wanted to understand what my friend was venting about to help them. After getting through what I like to call “communication gymnastics” and patiently asking them to slow down and break it down for me, I had a “eureka” moment, and what was bothering my friend finally dawned on me.
As workplace investigators, we can sometimes find ourselves in similar situations with complainants, where it feels as though we are not fully grasping what a complainant is alleging. These situations made me reflect on tools that I have used to help steer me in the right direction to better understand a complainant’s allegations. Below are some tips on conducting an effective complainant interview.
1. Prepare beforehand
It is important to ensure that you are prepared before you conduct your interview with the complainant. A good practice is to review the written complaint document (if there is one) and any other relevant documents that are provided to you, including company policies and/or governing statutes. If there is no written complaint, consider inquiring as to the nature of the allegations generally so that you have a better idea of what to expect in your interview.
2. Understand the complainant’s allegations
Throughout the interview, be sure you understand the complainant’s allegations. If you don’t understand a term they use, ask. If a sentence is not clear, ask them to break it down and simplify. In my experience, when I feel I am not fully understanding a complainant’s allegations, I like to politely say to the complainant, “I am not clear on what your concern is. Can you help me understand?” It is important to note that if you, as the investigator, don’t understand the complaint, then there is a very good chance the respondent won’t either.
3. Be Flexible
Allow the complainant space to tell their story, but ask follow-up questions where needed. If you don’t want to interrupt their train of thought, make a note to yourself of what you want to ask them once they are done speaking. In my practice, when I find myself in situations like this, I make sure I quickly jot down key terms to remind me of follow-up questions, phrases, or a particular topic I want to discuss with the complainant, so I do not lose my train of thought.
4. Ask about impact
As investigators, we can sometimes be so focused on obtaining the facts of the complaint that we forget to ask about the impact of the alleged conduct, and yet a key principle at the very core of our work is understanding intent vs. impact. The tests for harassment and discrimination under the Ontario Human Rights Code consider the effect(s) or consequence(s) of the words or behaviour, not whether there was an intention on the part of the respondent to harass or discriminate.1 Workplace investigators must understand the impact that an act or conduct has had on a complainant in order to fully understand the complaint. Asking a complainant about the impact of the conduct not only allows them to express their feelings (which can help you as the investigator better understand where the complainant is coming from), but it also helps inform your analysis of the alleged conduct.
Fully understanding a complainant’s allegations sets the tone for a fair investigation process. The above tips will ensure that you start your process off on the right foot.
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